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The Campagnolo Delta: the most celebrated brake in the world

Why is it that a discontinued brake, that has a reputation for being notoriously bad at being able to stop, is one of the most celebrated components ever made by Campagnolo?

Campagnolo Delta illustration

Bicycle components rarely capture our imagination and obsession, mostly because they are lumps of metal. It is the sum of all the components of a groupset that propel you forward.

And yet, there is a brake that captivates cycling fans. It is on t-shirts, mugs, and on eBay for triple the price of a modern, high-performance brake. It is the Campagnolo Delta.

It started in 1985

They were never referred to as the Delta brake by their Italian makers, but garnered the nickname because it had the shape of the Greek letter Delta (Δ). Officially known as Campagnolo C-Record brake, it was unveiled in 1984, and appeared in every Campagnolo catalogue from 1985 to 1992. Made from aluminium and steel, they would gleam back at readers, the faceplate proudly displaying the Campagnolo logo.

Campagnolo Delta version 2 at Condor

Timeline

1984 - Brake announced in revamped C-Record groupset
1985 - Version one available for purchase
1986 - C-Record brake recalled
1987 - 2nd generation with wider body released
1988 - 3rd generation of brake
1989 - 4th generation of brake
1990 - 5th generation with five pivot design
1992 - C-Record (Delta) brake discontinued

Incredibly expensive at the time at £300, they were found on pro tour bikes and cost more than Super Record. Over the next eight years, Campagnolo fettled and refined their brake, changing the width and the famous three pivot parallelogram to a five pivot design. They even introduced a version for a lower groupset called Croce d’Aune.

In 1991, Shimano released the Dura-Ace 7403 brake, the first dual pivot calliper. They looked just like any other brake but offered better braking modulation (ability to control the brake power) than the Delta, proven stopping, were easy to set up, and were lightweight. It is a design that has been retained to this day. The Campagnolo C-Record brake had met its match and Campagnolo discontinued it in 1992.

How it works

The brake had a centre-pull design. Under the mirror-like faceplate, a centrally mounted brake cable would pull on a three pivot, diamond-shaped mechanism and draw the brake pads closer to the rim. Campagnolo called the mechanism an ‘articulated parallelogram’. The parallelogram would transfer and multiply braking forces or, as Campagnolo put it, “the parallelogram allows for braking power on the brake shoes higher than the power applied to the lever.”

Delta Brake Catalogue and Mechanism

A centre pull brake wasn’t anything new, found on most bikes pre-1970s, but had been superseded by the side-pull brake for many years. Traditional centre-pull used a straddle wire set above the brake shoes. Its design meant that there were lots of opportunities for the brake cable to flex and lose tension. The Delta had a fresh approach; the brake cable ran straight down through the calliper. Campagnolo had bypassed the need for a straddle wire.

Trouble in Vincenza

The brake suffered a rocky childhood. Customers complained that the steel articulating arms rusted quickly, the quick-release on top of the brake was flimsy (and rumoured to fail, causing crashes), and nobody could figure out how to put the aluminium cover back on once it was pulled off. Campagnolo recalled the first version, switching it for the Cobalto brake calliper instead, which featured a nut with a blue plastic gem stuck on the front.

When 1987 rolled around, Campagnolo had overhauled their design. The new version had a stainless steel mechanism, the body was physically wider, the quick-release was moved to the lever, and bigger brake pads now had small toe-in adjustment screws.

According to a Bicycling Magazine article calling it the ‘worst brake ever made’ the US Campagnolo distributor had to set up a free phone number to help customers struggling with the brakes.

Then came the allen key needed to set up the brake. The second generation required an unusual 3.5mm key, even on today's toolsets it's unlikely you’ll find it.

Magazine reporters gossiped race teams hated the brakes because you couldn’t stop or if you did you would violently skid to a halt. The modulation promised didn’t exist.

Campagnolo Delta on a Condor Baracchi 1987

Team mechanics complained it was difficult to set up, the cable had to be cut just above the tyre. You couldn’t adjust the pads to the rim if the wheel wasn’t in position. It was a task that required precision, patience and an extra hand. And if you changed the wheel and the rim width was different you’d need spacers to adjust the brake.

Was it a failure

For a brake that was apparently so bad, isn’t it curious that every Tour de France winner from 1986 to 1992 had Delta brakes on their bike? After all, Campagnolo themselves made other high end brakes like the Super Record and Chorus Monoplanar. Did the stories of bad brakes stem from frustrated mechanics and consumers who were in a hurry and did not set up their brakes correctly?

ICS Delta BrakeLaurent Fignon riding with Delta Brake

Campagnolo was not completely out of step with their design either. Their rival, Shimano, had also introduced a brake using centre-pull, the Dura-Ace AX. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Campagnolo C-Record had plenty of imitators, such as Weinman’s Delta Pro and MRC’s Delta, both launched in 1990. Then there was Zurich-based Italcicli Cycle Systems (ICS), who would rework Campagnolo Super Record components to turn them into pieces of jewellery using gold plating, adding ceramic widgets and teflon coated thingys or custom etching, and of course ICS deemed the Delta worthy of their treatment, too.

Form over function

The late eighties was a significant time for cycling. The first televised pictures of the Tour were beamed into our homes. An American rider won the Tour and the closest race in history, Lemond vs Fignon, was played out in colour before our eyes. Until the eighties, aerodynamics didn’t feature in cycling vocabulary. By 1986 we were captivated by aerodynamics and began to realise that lighter wasn’t always faster. Enter the Campagnolo Delta with it's wind-cheating looks. The Delta adorned the bikes of the heroes and villains of the Malliot Jaune and the Maglia Rosa. Its shining aluminium body could be seen a mile off, like a bonnet ornament on a Rolls Royce.

Campagnolo dances a fine line between function, form and art. The Delta, like art, is emotive, reminding us of a time when cycling was taking its next step, in popularity, in technology, and towards a new decade. The Delta reminds some of their childhood, pouring over magazines, coveting kit that pocket money couldn’t cover. Bundle that all up with the rumours, the recalls, rarity, sketchy catalogue information, and YouTube set up masterclasses, and there you have the folklore of the Campagnolo Delta brake.



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